Little is nowadays said about Ukwala, one of the oldest administrative centres in Western Kenya.
This once vibrant town that lent its name to Ukwala chain of supermarkets is without a bank, 50 years after it temporarily hosted the headquarters of what is today Siaya County.
Word has it that Indian traders who founded the chain operated from Siranga, two kilometres away and ran away with the name when they re-located to Kisumu and other towns.
Ukwala seems forgotten — and depending on the season, is left to mud and dust. Monkeys from a nearby man-made forest are an ubiquitous nuisance. Residents recall with nostalgia a well-kept Green Park ringed with whitewashed pebbles and secured with un-breached wire fence.
The pebbles are no more, the wire fence in bits and pieces and the park, which is right infront of the sub-County’s administration block and adjacent to the Law Courts, is an abandoned eyesore.
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Residents savouring Ukwala’s memory recently joined forces with Leadership Task Force Volunteers, a youthful contingent from South Korea who in tandem with Dongruokdala Community based-organisation and Global Peace Foundation (GPF) are out to help the town regain its lost glory.
They planted grass and flowers in and around the Green Park in a bid to rehabilitate it. The occasion peaked with the installation of solar-powered street lights to chase away darkness, something the Siaya County Government had tried but their lights are no longer working.
On the day they were there, half the township had a power outage which, residents said had lasted for almost a week.
Their calls to Kenya Power engineers stationed 13 kilometres away at Ugunja had not borne fruit.
“Everyone seems to have forgotten us,” a local shopkeeper said. “As long as the government buildings are not affected, the engineers take their time to address any faults.”
But with the power outage, comes water shortage, and this affects everyone since the town’s sole water pump that is managed by Siaya-Bondo Water Services Company (SIBOWASCO) cannot operate.
Even SIBOWASCO board members and engineers are less-enthusiastic when it comes to Ukwala. The town used to have four boreholes, but three dried up, and it now has to make do with one. Taps can be dry for weeks because the water pump’s fuse has blown and the local engineers have to wait for one from SIBOWASCO’s main offices in Bondo or Siaya towns. And many are the times when electricity to the pump is disconnected because the power bill is not paid, yet the consumers have done their bit.
Older folks will tell you that the town was once vibrant and had all amenities including a Town Hall where social and official functions were held.
In 1966, Central Nyanza District that was headquartered at Kisumu was split and the seat of the new district named Siaya moved to Ukwala due to its superior infrastructure and a halcyon environment.
They will also name the prominent people who came from there. Kenyatta-era Cabinet Minister Mathews Ogutu hailed from the area. Siaya senator James Orengo, who was a Minister in the Kibaki-Raila government comes from there. Archbishop Stephen Oluoch Ondiek who was an assistant Minister during the Moi era called Ukwala home. But all of them left no visible spoors in their trail.
The two vital roads to Ugunja and Sega both on the Kisumu-Busia Highway are not tarmacked. Pundits say these two forgotten roads have everything to do with Ukwala’s failing health.
Pioneer Siaya District Commissioner Isaiah Cheluget operated in a neater Ukwala with neither puddles nor pot holes before the headquarters shifted to Siaya, 29 kilometres away, after infrastructural improvement there. “Ukwala had all it takes to host the headquarters but for its location far from the middle,” narrates 87-year old Ochieng Milwal.
“Also, the then Senior Chief Muganda Okwako objected to the sale of land by his subjects, arguing that land was limited and recommended the District Headquarters be taken to Alego Siaya where his colleague, Senior Chief Amoth Owira had more land.
“Chief Muganda, whose word was law, did not want a congested town, but maybe Ukwala would be a different place today had the District Headquarters remained and attracted more development.”
Ukwala is without a tarmac road and nights are just waking up from dark spells with the solar powered floodlights project. The Leadership Task Force Volunteers also distributed solar lanterns to deserving families to light up rural homes.
The town easily attracted British colonial authorities because of its high altitude terrain and a cool climate not favourable to the breeding of malaria pawning mosquitoes.
Lake Victoria and Nzoia and Yala rivers with their abundance of fish are within easy reach. Food was plenty. “That explains Ukwala’s initial growth into a pulsating administrative centre complete with a police station, a prison and a court for the natives (African District court) when other urban centres such as Siaya, Yala, Bondo and Usenge remained sheer market centres for the locals,” explains Milwal.
Today, Ukwala has been eclipsed by these centres, but the dispensary has grown and expanded into a County Hospital. That the main road to Busia and Uganda did not pass through Ukwala has also added to its woes and stunted its growth.
New buildings have come up, but some of the older ones, expecially residential houses occupied by government officials, are hoary. Standing alone along the dusty road to Ugunja is Mama Lizz Supermarket, its surroundings dominated by lush grass and trees. Ukwala Post Office, next to the supermarket is an antiquated but sturdy structure that has seen better times. A lone telephone booth dating to the days when mobile phones were a preserve of the privileged stands gaunt and desolate at one corner, as if preserved for posterity.
The Law Courts that once made Ukwala great as the only corridors of justice for natives serving a large area including parts of Busia and Mumias in the colonial days peep shyly from wooded grounds next to a well-stocked public library which is run by Kenya National Library Services.
The newer premises obscure the colonial structures that are a perfect tourist attraction if well-utilised. The road to Aboke and Funyula accommodates most of the modern Ukwala. The Matibabu Foundation Hospital and College of Health Sciences which also runs school of nursing is an imposing structure along the road that also has Ukwala Guest House.
Ukwala Plaza and Nyasrek Mall stand conspicuously opposite the desolate-looking police lines along the road to Luhano and Rwambwa. The road also carries St Mary’s Ukwala primary and secondary schools, St Patrick’s Ukwala Girls Primary School and the Catholic church.
Many visitors to Ukwala put up at Ugunja and Sega towns on the Kisumu-Busia highway where accommodation facilities are more readily available. But visitors who want to spend in Ukwala can find a home at Gevaan Hotel and Ukwala Guest House.
What Ukwala lacks in infrastructure, it makes up for in exceedingly verdant surroundings. Almost every corner of the old town of about 20,000 is splashed with greenery. Lights will enhance Ukwala’s beauty even as tarmac remains but a mirage.